Ever since 9/11, Muslims have been forced to hedge their identity in order to appease racist views of Islam in the West. Followers of a faith with over a billion adherents were compelled to bear the guilt for the actions of nineteen terrorists.
An unspoken presumption grew that perceived each person who was a Muslim as an intolerant zealot unless they could prove otherwise to Western audiences. When Muslims would try to defend their religious beliefs in the face of such prejudice, they were often called ‘apologists’ trying to water down a religious creed based on violence.
In this environment, the desire of every Muslim to be seen as something other than the actions of fringe radical groups caused them to allow instances of clear racism to pass. Be it casual encounters or more aggressive forms of racism, Muslims kept their heads down and their mouths shut — because we didn’t want to feed the stereotype of the angry Muslim.
Muslims in the West held on to an optimism that other people would call out racism against them the same way they called out racism against other groups. That terrorism against them would be highlighted by the media the same way it was highlighted when it happened to others.
None of that happened. Instead, Islamophobia became normal and 50 people were murdered in cold blood in Christchurch because of it.
What happened in Christchurch is a consequence of the mainstreaming of racist views against Islam and Muslims by politicians, academics, and so-called intellectuals like Christopher Hitchens. After 9/11, Islam was perceived as one of the greatest threats to the liberal democratic order — it wasn’t. The greatest threat to democracy today is a far-right movement howling for white supremacy.
The terrorist attack in Christchurch is a consequence of the normalisation of Islamophobia around the world through the ascent of far-right political parties and websites, such as 4chan and 8chan, that allow white supremacists to congregate. It is the direct result of a worldwide discourse that has been unable to differentiate between Muslims who want to live in peace and those who mask their violent tendencies behind religion.
This discourse is racist, and those who believe in it are guilty of racism. It is time we called them that. As columnist Wajahat Ali put it for the New York Times: “All those who have helped to spread the worldwide myth that Muslims are a threat have blood on their hands.”
Chief among those enabling this racist environment is the man who is the leader of the most powerful nation on earth. Donald Trump fires off anti-Muslim rhetoric and racist propaganda faster than he declares bankruptcy. In this respect, he is no different than a religious preacher who spews vitriol towards other religions in his sermons day after day just waiting for someone to act upon it.
Trump’s racist portfolio includes him saying ‘Britain was losing its culture through immigration’; lying about seeing Muslims celebrate 9/11; calling for a travel ban on Muslims; lying (again) about a caravan entering the United States that included ‘Middle Easterners;’ and, saying ‘Islam hates us.’
Ideas, no matter how repugnant, have the power to enable action. The more we normalise racist ideas, the more we will normalise racist actions. People like Trump, Viktor Orban, and Sam Harris must bear the blame for what happened in Christchurch.
Think I’m pushing things? How can I possibly blame Trump for what happened in a place as distant as New Zealand? Well, the Christchurch terrorist was enamoured by Trump’s anti-immigrant, white supremacist narrative. He praised Trump as “a symbol of the renewed white identity and common purpose.”
Christchurch is not — and probably will not — be the only instance that shows how racist ideas have painful consequences. Robert Bowers, who committed the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue, believed that Jews were part of a conspiracy to fund migrant caravans into the US. It was a lie that Donald Trump had repeated many times.
In fact, Trump’s inner circle was made up of people like Steve King, a believer in a conspiracy theory known as the ‘Great Replacement’ which advances a fear that Jews, blacks and Muslims will replace white people and eventually subordinate them. It included Steven Bannon who often endorsed ‘The Camp of the Saints’ a racist French novel about the destruction of Western civilisation due to immigration.
The narrative of white supremacy is now a global phenomenon. Gaining traction over the past decades while the world looked elsewhere for the enemies of democracy. The Christchurch terrorist hailed from Australia where the white supremacist movement has a considerable following.
In 2015, a movement called ‘Reclaim Australia’, rallied with placards reading ‘Islam is the enemy of the West’. The Australian Liberty Alliance has called Islam a ‘totalitarian ideology’, much like the West’s beloved Christopher Hitchens once did in a debate with Tariq Ramadan.
As these people and movements became normal, so did Islamophobia. Internet sites such as 8chan allowed these ideas to fester into malignant forms. With Facebook, Instagram and Twitter now every ‘patriot’ with their head full of ‘Mein Kampf’ can bypass the editorial guard rails of the traditional press to incite violence against immigrants and minorities.
If social media is the future, then it must not give us a future where a man can livestream the murder of 50 people. That is not free speech, that is terrorism.
In a world where Islamophobia is the prevailing mindset of some of the most powerful people that exist, the Christchurch incident does not surprise us. Muslims have been living under an ominous cloud of fear ever since the far-right grew powerful enough to gain control of the United States and some parts of Europe.
Christchurch has shown how racist ideas against Muslims have devastating consequences. It is time for the world to wake up to this reality before more blood is shed across the globe. And it is time for the Muslims to band together to call out racist speech against them for what it is.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 19th, 2019.